Religion in Public Schools in Search of Fairness

Article excerpt

We must recognize that fairness to religion requires protecting and encouraging the religious expression of students and showing fairness to religious world views in curricula, Mr. Glanzer points out. But it also requires legislative solutions that allow parents to choose an education for their children consistent with their own world views.

I CAN actually remember attending religious services at my public school. The service took place each Friday morning during the fall. We sang hymns led by the band director, chanted a liturgy led by female worship leaders, and listened to a leader deliver inspirational speeches. Enduring these high school pep rallies before football games helped me understand the local running joke, "Do you know what the two major religions are in Texas? Southern Baptist and Football." On those Friday mornings, I was required to attend the football service.

I do not wish to make the case, although others might like to, that courts should declare football in Texas an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Instead, I am suggesting that activities and ideas we commonly consider "secular" are not necessarily neutral. They compete for the hearts and minds of our children with other ideas and activities, including those we commonly consider religious.

This curious, although necessarily uneven, competition was evident in my public high school in other, more serious ways. Christianity received some official and unofficial support. For instance, at each football game a quick prayer was offered over the intercom, and athletes who seldom went to church encouraged fellow team members to recite the Lord's Prayer before the game.

Yet, apart from the few Christian rituals surrounding football games, I rarely encountered substantive religious ideas in school. Although I was quite interested in learning more about religion, I did not actually read Milton or Augustine, hear about the Reformation, study the rise of Islam, or comprehend the influence of Buddhism until college. When looking back, I find it odd that public education in my Bible Belt school basically ignored religion. My school experience, I believe, reflects a problem that is still evident throughout American public education. The power of government is used to favor or promote particular ideological perspectives or world views. In a few cases, Christianity may be favored, but in the majority of states and schools, the world views being given preferential treatment are secular. Fairness to both nonreligious and religious people and perspectives remains an elusive goal.

What would it take to establish justice toward religious and nonreligious students and toward religious and nonreligious perspectives in America's public school system? Religious liberty scholar Michael McConnell provides a helpful starting point:

The beginning of wisdom in this contentious area of law is to recognize that neutrality and secularism are not the same thing. In the marketplace of ideas, secular viewpoints and ideologies are in competition with religious viewpoints and ideologies. It is no more neutral to favor the secular over the religious than it is to favor the religious over the secular.1

Understanding this basic point would help educators avoid favoring either specific religious or nonreligious beliefs -- the fundamental principle embodied in the religion clauses in the First Amendment. Furthermore, applying this standard of fairness with regard to the speech and activities of students, with regard to classroom content, and with regard to the larger ideological perspectives guiding public education would create an education system that demonstrates fairness toward the diversity of American students.

Students' Rights Related to Free Speech and Religious Exercise

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that students do not surrender their First Amendment rights when they walk through the school doors. …